China is an excellent country for budget travel. There is a lot to see in terms of scenery and historical sites. If you stay for any serious amount of time, you will meet many interesting people and have great stories to tell your friends back home. This is particularly the case if you travel on a budget and by necessity need to interact with local people. Some of the sub-sections below outline information about China visas. Note that while I have recently gone through some of these application procedures, I do not work for a government agency and do not take responsibility for any deviations between your experiences and mine.
Citizens of most countries need a visa to enter China; see this wikipedia page for more details. Due to recent relaxations in entry restrictions on Chinese nationals, Americans and Canadians can currently obtain 10-year multiple entry tourist visas (L-Visa). This is the easiest option to enter and travel around China available to most North American travelers. Generally each entry is 60 days, but sometimes consulates offer 90 day entries. If you want to spend a longer period of time in China, the easiest option is to enroll in a Chinese language program to get a year-long X-Visa. Note that you are not officially allowed to work on either of these kinds of visa. That being said, many English training schools will still hire you under the table, but it is at both your risk and their risk. You may be forced to leave the country and they may lose their business licenses.
Pro-tip: It’s best to use a visa service such as VisaRite if you are not close to a big city with an embassy or consulate. If you want to apply in person at the New York consulate note that you need to have a home address in a nearby state and you need to have all of the forms typed out. They do not have any forms available in the consulate and you can’t cross anything off a printed form. See the NY consulate page for more details.
Although there are hundreds of different languages spoken in China, most people under 40 or so can communicate in Standard Chinese (commonly referred to as ‘Mandarin’ in English which is actually the name of the dialect family to which it belongs). However, very few people speak English well enough to have a coherent conversation. Be prepared for nobody to speak English in your hotel, restaurant, or even in the airport. If you don’t know the language perhaps the best option for solo travel is to prepare a bilingual printout containing a list of all the places you will need to visit, food items you need to avoid (allergies and/or lifestyle choices), and anything else you want to communicate.
Getting by day-to-day
I wasn’t exactly sure how to title this sub-section, but anyway the point I want to make here is that life in China is largely shaped by the fact that there are tons of people almost everywhere you will visit. This has many advantages – restaurants, businesses, and transportation are available throughout most of the hours people are generally awake (before 8am through well into nighttime). On the other hand, it will be crowded everywhere you visit. Sensibilities about personal space differ considerably from those in North America. Expect people to push you in line or even directly cut in front of you if you appear to be moving slowly. After a while you will just get used to these norms. Also note that sitdown toilets are hard to find in most public places because people in China prefer the squat toilet.
People always ask me whether or not I’ve eaten dog or cat on my visits to China. I’ve tried dog once, but it is not a commonly consumed meat in the present time. In fact, most of the food available is not particularly exotic. Big cities have many western options if you aren’t adventurous. One thing to keep in mind is that there are not many options for strict vegetarians as it is common to use chicken stock or beef broth in sauces and soups. I list some vegetarian options on my Kunming page.
Options for Accommodation
Most cities in China have a wide range of places to sleep; however, not every establishment is set up to take foreigners. This is mostly because all Chinese have a national id card which is typically scanned to register in a hotel whereas foreign nationals need to use their passports to register. If you go to more remote places, some people will have no idea what your passport is or how to find the relevant information (see note above about language). All this being said, many business owners will bend the rules to make a profit. If you really need to travel on a budget you can stay in Zhaodaisuo (招待所) hotels which can be as low as 20 RMB per day, but are maintained at a standard lower than which a typical North American is accustomed. Very good deals are available on Hostelworld and more expensive traditional hotels (still a good value by US standards) are available on Expedia.
The national currency of China is the Renminbi (or RMB). Exchange rates have been fluctuating considerably lately and reliable current rates of choice currencies are available on Yahoo Currency Converter. Do not bother bringing large amounts of cash or travelers’ checks to get RMB. Simply withdraw cash from ATMs, preferably either Bank of China or ICBC (Industrial and Commericial Bank of China). Sometimes an ATM machine will not work, but don’t assume that it has anything to do with your card; simply try another ATM until you get cash.
Travel by Train or Bus
Buying train and bus tickets in China is sometimes a hassle. As a foreigner without a national id card, you will typically need to purchase your ticket in person either at the station or through an agency affiliated with either industry. Tickets are not always available on the day and time you would like to travel (again, one of the disadvantages of a 1.3 billion population), so many people purchase their tickets several days in advance (I recommend this if your itinerary permits). I have purchased train tickets online through the China highlights website; they require a digital photocopy of your passport and charge a small fee but provide an exceptional service in my experience.
Travel by Plane
Traveling by plane is not very different than air travel in the US. There are some important things to keep in mind, however. First, some airlines such as AirChina have strict check-in policies regarding amount of time between check-in and boarding which they do not bend for anyone. I suggest arriving at least a full hour in advance even for domestic flights. Second, you may need to take a bus between the gate and the plane. This is a real annoyance because most people need to stand while dragging their carry-on bags. Be prepared to stand with nothing to hold on to while squished between dozens of people. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this, so I figure I’d share this bit of information for your own mental preparation. Third, unlike US flights, all Chinese domestic flights provide a meal regardless of the duration of the flight.
Travel by Bike
Long distance traveling by bike is more convenient in China than in most places. Decent used bikes and equipment (bags, spare tire tubes, etc) are cheap and easy to find. Repair shops are common in most cities and the service fees are very low.
Cars and buses drive slower in China compared with most places in North America and drivers are accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists (stay on the far right in any case). This all being said, expect a good deal of honking (mostly a practice of safety notifying other cars of each other’s presence). Overall I enjoy biking much more in China than the US.
What Happens if I Lose my Passport?
I had my passport stolen in 2010. This was a logistical nightmare so I figure I should share this experience in case any readers encounter any situation in which they lose their passport. Much to my advantage, however, I had photocopies of my passport identity page and my most recent Chinese visa (I recommend making photocopies before you leave).
In case of loss or theft, the first thing you need to do is report the loss to the police in the area where you misplaced your passport. Bring a friend if you can’t speak Chinese. The police will give you a report which acts as a temporary visa/passport. You can use this report to book hotels and travel domestically, but there is a time limit on how long it is valid, so you will need to act fast to get a new passport. After you have the report in hand, you need to find the closest consulate or embassy. In my case, I was already in Beijing so I just went to the US embassy in Beijing. Some other traveler I met was in Gansu province when his passport was stolen and had to take a two-day train ride between Lanzhou and Beijing to go to the embassy.
When you go to the embassy or consulate you will be sent to an office which issues passports. The typical procedure for attaining a new passport takes a couple days; all you need to do provide the officer with some personal information and pay a fee, but they need a little time to make the passbook. I needed to leave Beijing quickly, so they made me a temporary emergency passport for immediate travel. These temporary passports are only valid for three months and you must return to the US before they expire.
After you have a new passport, you will need a new Chinese visa to stay in China and later leave the country. You can do this by going to the local Entry-Exit Administration Office (出入境管理处) of the Public Safety Bureau (公安局) of whichever city you are in, show the officer the police report indicating loss of prior passport, old photocopies, fill out some forms, and pay the visa fee. It usually takes a few days to process the visa and if you originally entered on a tourist visa, your new visa will only be valid for 30 days.